I’ve been trying to remember when I first worked out that an Indian had become the first international rock star from the subcontinent. My guess is that it was in 1974. That was the year Queen released a pop song about a high-class call girl which they called Killer Queen. (She keeps Moët et Chandon in a pretty cabinet.) I liked the song as did most people – it eventually got to number one on some charts. But I was especially intrigued by the lead singer, one Freddie Mercury. Surely he looks Indian, I thought to myself.
But Freddie said he wasn’t Indian. All stories about Queen took the line that the band was entirely English. This did not surprise me too much. In those days, those of us who lived in the UK were used to stars who denied their Indian-ness. The Hollywood actress Merle Oberon claimed to be Tasmanian but gossip had it she was an Anglo-Indian from Bombay. (The gossip was correct. After her death, biographers discovered that she was an Anglo-Indian girl called Queenie, probably from Colaba).
Then there were the stories about Cliff Richard. His official biographies all said that he was born Harry Webb in Lucknow but suggested that his parents had lived in the colonies as representatives of the Empire. Our own Anglo-Indians thought differently: he was one of their own, they said proudly. And how about Gerry Dorsey, alias Engelbert Humperdinck? His official biographies admitted to a Madras connection but denied that he had any Indian blood. Once again, we knew better. “Part Indian but hides it”, we muttered under our breath.
The thing about Merle Oberon, Cliff Richard and Engelbert was that they were all old showbiz where you always pretended to be entirely Western (all right, white). But rock and roll was different. There was no shame in coming from a foreign country or in not being white. Forget about all the black singers. What about Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, who was married to an Anglo-Indian and would go to Indian restaurants and demand the hottest curries, boasting that he was Indian by marriage? George Harrison was so into Indian culture that the British rock press took to calling him ‘Hari’ (after ‘Hari Georgeson’, a pseudonym he sometimes used.)
So why would any rock star want, in 1974, to deny that he had Indian roots? The British press was content to accept Freddie’s stories about his origins, but the American rock press probed deeper. When Queen went to Japan in April 1975, Rolling Stone interviewed Freddie and pointed out that his real name was Balsara. After that, none of the band’s obfuscations and denials cut much ice with me. Most Indians knew that Balsara was a Parsi surname and when you looked at Freddie (even during his long-haired phase) there was no doubt that he had Parsi features, no matter what he said about his English origins.
Bit by bit, by the end of the Seventies, Queen were forced to accept that their lead singer was not quite as English as roast beef and fish and chips. At first, the band put it about that Freddie was born in Zanzibar, which made him sound rather exotic because few Queen fans knew where Zanzibar was. (It is in Africa.) Then, interviewers were told that Freddie had ‘Persian blood’. (Ah yes, that old Parsi chestnut.) When people asked about his education, the band’s management suggested that Freddie had done part of his schooling in India because his father was a civil servant in the service of the Empire. (In the Sixties? What Empire?) Freddie encouraged the lies and deceptions. I remember reading an interview with him in the Eighties. When the interviewer said he wanted to discuss the relatives Freddie had left behind in India, the singer refused to discuss the subject, simpering, “How mundane, darling! Let’s talk about something else.”
But then, Freddie lied about a lot of things. He lied about being gay, for instance, even though he had no need to. David Bowie came out as bisexual in 1972 and went to record company offices in a dress. Elton John said he was bisexual in 1976. (“I think people should draw the line at goats,” he told Rolling Stone about his preferences.)
Though Freddie was camper than either of these stars, he refused to admit that he was gay or even bisexual. Nor did he confirm stories that he was suffering from AIDS even when he looked visibly ill. Only, on the eve of his death, did he admit to AIDS. The gay stories only tumbled out posthumously. Why did Freddie need to lie? I’ve been reading Freddie Mercury, The Definitive Biography by Lesley-Ann Jones, a former rock journalist who writes with all the ruthless detachment of a panting fan-magazine columnist. And even Jones, who believes that Freddie could do no wrong, has no explanation for the deceptions. The best she can manage is: “Perhaps Freddie believed that music fans of the 1970s were not ready for a rock star with African and Indian roots.” Really? Then why did he keep lying well into the 1980s, when fans were certainly ready for the truth?
Worse still, Jones wants to keep Freddie’s lies alive. An unnamed spokesman for the Parsi community is quoted as saying “the fact that we migrated to India does not make us Indian. If you are a Jew, but your family have not lived in Palestine for the past 2000 years, does that make you less Jewish?” This kind of he-was-Persian-really nonsense is used to also defend Freddie’s lies about his sexuality. “For Parsis, homosexuality is not only sinful, but a form, unimaginably, of devil worship."
So let’s get this right. Freddie hid the fact that he was Parsi because rock fans were not ready for it and he hid his homosexuality because he was a Parsi which – let’s see – he also denied…
The story of Freddie’s early life that emerges from Jones’ book is depressingly mundane. His father was a Parsi clerk, who went to work in Zanzibar. He sent his son Farrokh to St Peter’s in Panchgani, near Bombay, and struggled to pay the fees. Freddie joined a pop band in Bombay with Parsi and Anglo-Indian friends. He had relatives in Dadar Parsi Colony. He was shy. He was effeminate and probably gay, even at an early age.
Political changes in Zanzibar forced his parents to move to England in 1964. His father got a job as a cashier in a restaurant. His mother worked at Marks & Spencer. They lived in the depressing London suburb of Feltham. Freddie went to art school in nearby Ealing, then tried hard to make a living, coming back regularly to Feltham for his mother’s dhansak.
Then, one of the bands he joined – Queen – began to look like it would make it. Freddie dropped the Balsara, took on the name Mercury, rarely talked about the revealing fact that his parents were called Bomi and Jer and that his sister’s name was Kashmira, and concealed his love of dhansak. The flamboyant, over-the-top, but never openly-gay Mercury persona became the invention behind which he hid his origins and his ethnicity.
Would it have mattered if he had told the truth? I don’t think anyone is under any obligation to reveal his or her sexuality so I don’t accept the argument – frequently advanced by gay groups – that Freddie should have come out so that young homosexuals were encouraged by his example. Nor do I think it was incumbent on him to admit he was HIV-positive. It was a private matter and it was his own decision to make.
As for his ethnicity, yes, all of us would have been thrilled to identify with an Indian rock star. But that’s not important. Freddie owed us nothing; he had no reason to serve as an idol or role model to us.
But, ask yourself this: what kind of man hides his nationality, lies about his origins and pretends to be somebody he is not? Consider Freddie’s behaviour with an old school friend who came up to him during his super-stardom days. According to Jones’ biography: “Freddie looked right through this poor fellow and said to him, ‘I’m sorry, but I am afraid I just don’t know who you are’.” Even after he’d made it, when it would cost him nothing to acknowledge the Indian friends from his childhood, Freddie pretended that he did not know who they were.
Somewhere at his core, Farrokh Balsara must have really hated himself to deny so completely who he really was.
From HT Brunch, July 8
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